Although Kenya often appears in the press as a nation split by ethnic discord, it has just two “tribes”: the rich and the poor.
In recent months, presidential politics have dominated the international coverage of Kenya — and for good reason. Political scions Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga — sons of the country’s first president and vice president, respectively — have squared off for the nation’s highest office in an environment swirling with legal battles, corruption, and state-sponsored violence.
On August 8, the initial vote resulted in the first judicial nullification of a presidential election in the African continent’s history. And even after a rerun of the election last month — which returned Kenyatta to power amid a mass boycott — the political crisis hasn’t subsided.
The issues animating the ongoing convulsion are complex. The nation’s colonial past, its struggles with authoritarianism, and its unequal development are all sources of contention. Kenyatta and Odinga’s ideological differences — rooted in their fathers’ political struggles over regionalism and inequality in the 1960s — also generate political conflict.
But ask the average western pundit, and the battle is one over simple tribal loyalty. They refract the entire society through an ahistorical lens of ethnicity, divining in Kenya’s voting patterns blind ethnic allegiance.
Ten years ago, Odinga and Kenyatta were on either sides of another disputed election. That time around, post-election violence left over one thousand dead and six hundred thousand internally displaced. And sure enough, western journalists promoted the idea that “an atavistic vein of tribal tension” was driving the country’s electoral strife.
But Kenyan elections are more than a “ruthless game of thrones.” While ethnicity plays a role in stoking tensions at the polls, it cannot explain the nation’s political fissures. The victims of Kenya’s deep inequities are not any single cultural or regional group; they are the urban and rural poor. And their marginalization — a product of endemic corruption, repression, and pro-capital development — will continue adding fuel to the raging political fire.